Stranded whale refloated at Christchurch's Waimairi Beach
Rescuers cheered as a stranded whale was successfully refloated at Christchurch's Waimairi Beach.
Thousands of locals, Project Jonah volunteers and Department of Conservation (DOC) workers watched nervously as the false killer whale swam out to sea after being refloated on a pontoon about 2.30pm on Sunday.
The whale was one of two discovered stranded on the beach before first light. An adult female, found about 500 metres away from the younger whale, was already dead. It was taken away for burial by the Tūāhuriri Rūnanga on Sunday afternoon.
The living whale was kept alive by Project Jonah volunteers who dug a hole around it to prevent sand from compressing its organs. They kept the whale wet with buckets of water carried by hundreds of locals who formed a human chain to bring water from the ocean.
DOC biodiversity supervisor Craig Alexander said a digger was used to carve out a trench, which allowed the mammal to be refloated earlier than first thought. The rūnanga performed a karakia (prayer) before the whale was refloated.
An inflatable rescue boat from the Waimairi Surf Life Saving Club was then used to steer the whale on the pontoon over the breaking waves and then the Coastguard took over to ferry it out about 500m from shore.
Alexander said there were a few nervous moments when the whale started to turn sideways going over the breakers but it righted itself again, to everyone's relief.
"The Coastguard was watching it for quite a while until it disappeared and they were not able to find it again. It was diving and showing behaviour that it should."
Alexander said he would pray the whale did not restrand itself overnight. Christchurch City Council rangers would patrol the beach over on Monday and Project Jonah asked people living in the area to keep a close eye on the coast over the next few days and to call them or DOC if they saw anything.
The support from the locals was fantastic, Alexander said, and despite the number of people, everyone was well-behaved and respectful of the whale. Police were called at one stage when two children, aged 6 and 3, went missing, but they were later found.
People came down with buckets to fill with water and food to feed the hungry volunteers.
Tessa Marsden travelled from Kaiapoi with two big pots of soup to hand out.
"We just made some soup and bought it down. It's all gone."
New Brighton resident Leonie Bowkett said she felt compelled to help save the whale.
"I just love animals. I love whales. They need saving and it needs help," she said.
Waimairi Beach resident Barbara Whitaker, who was part of the human chain, said her neighbour told her about the stranding and she rang all her neighbours to come down.
"It's great to see the community in action."
Tasman O'Sullivan, 13, was on the beach at 8am with her family.
"I was talking to the whale and reassuring it," she said.
Project Jonah volunteer Harvey Bentham said he was relieved to see the whale successfully refloated.
Project Jonah put out a warning on its Facebook page on Saturday afternoon after a pod of whales was spotted about 500m offshore from Port Levy, on Banks Peninsula.
It was not known why the whales stranded but scientists from Otago University would complete tests on the dead whale.
It had been about six years since the last whale stranding in Canterbury, which was at Port Levy, Alexander said.
A post on Project Jonah's Facebook page said it was very rare for false killer whales to get stranded.
"This is only the third ever record of a false killer whale stranding in the South Island with the last one being in 1984."